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Endorphins: The Natural High!

What exactly is a “natural high”? Are you an endorphin junkie?

What exactly is a “natural high”? Are you an endorphin junkie?

The answer lies in the pituitary gland of your brain. Endorphins are actually neurotransmitters and there have been over 20 demonstrated endorphins in humans. Endorphins are usually released as a response to stress or pain [1]. However, this is only manifested in physical stress or pain; that’s why endorphins are released after exercise. Endorphins actually interact with the opiate receptors in our brain to help reduce the pain felt.

In addition to decreased feelings of pain, secretion of endorphins leads to feelings of euphoria, modulation of appetite, release of sex hormones, and enhancement of the immune response [2]. With high endorphin levels, we feel less pain and fewer negative effects of stress. Because the endorphins affect the same part of the brain that drugs would, it is called the “natural high”.

Certain foods, such as chocolate or chili peppers, can also lead to secretion of endorphins. In the case of chili peppers, the spicier the pepper, the more endorphins are secreted. (Read The Benefits of Spicy Food! for more information). The release of endorphins after eating chocolate most likely explains the comforting feelings that many people associate chocolate, and explains the craving for chocolate in times of stress [2].

This topic is still debated, however, and endorphins haven’t completely proven to be the sole cause of euphoria after secretion, but it is the most likely cause. The problem with jumping to the conclusion that endorphins cause this natural high is that in large-scale studies, scientists measure endorphins present in the blood and not the brain. Then, they make the assumption that if endorphin levels rise in the blood, then it must be because of an increase of endorphins in the brain. However, this may not be accurate because of the blood-brain barrier present [1].

Other neurotransmitters can also be linked to the natural high. These include serotonin and norepinephrine [2]. Low levels of these have been linked to depression, so it is very likely that along with endorphins, these also play a part in the rush after excretion.

Unfortunately, there is no accurate, simple test for studying this topic. It is directly involved with neurotransmitters that can’t directly indicate actual levels because of the blood-brain barrier. As this is a relatively new topic, there is much more research needing to be conducted.

Just remember, the next time you exercise or eat chocolate that you are releasing chemicals that are giving you a natural high. How cool is that!

 


Sources:

[1] Domonell, Kristen. “Why Endorphins (and Exercise) Make You Happy.” CNN, Cable News Network, 13 Jan. 2016, www.cnn.com/2016/01/13/health/endorphins-exercise-cause-happiness/index.html.

[2] “Pain and Stress: Endorphins: Natural Pain and Stress Fighters.” MedicineNet, www.medicinenet.com/endorphins_natural_pain_and_stress_fighters/views.htm.

[3] Image from PicJumbo

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